What an amazing week it was. The judiciary made us feel proud, not once but three times back to back. At another level, though, the nation was shamed by a seducer whose frenzied followers killed and destroyed to support his freedom to rape. India remains an unending puzzle, inspirational one day, incorrigible the next. Just as a group of judges project the country as a model of democracy, a mob of idolaters turn it into the world’s laughing stock. Can we ever win?
For a long time to come, we will proudly recall that historic week’s triple bang: A No to the cruelty of triple talaq, a Yes to citizens’ right to privacy, and a firm No to the right to rape in God’s name. The talaq judgment, passed by a three-member majority in a five-member bench, was overshadowed by conventions of religion when in fact the emphasis should have been on constitutionality and the principles of equality. Nevertheless, the fact that the five judges came from five different faiths carried its own message at a time when majoritarianism is being asserted aggressively.
No shadows fell across a nine-member bench’s unanimous verdict that privacy was a fundamental right protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty. Some sentences in the judgment read like aphorisms that should be put up in golden letters in offices and homes: Privacy constitutes the foundation of all liberty. Those who are governed are entitled to question those who govern. Criticism and critique lie at the core of democratic governance.
Tolerance of dissent is equally a cherished value. Against such proclamations, the government’s reactions looked childish. The Law Minister turned himself into a farcical figure by claiming that the Court had actually affirmed the government’s position that the right to privacy was a fundamental right subject to reasonable restrictions.
The government’s stated position was not that at all. It was that privacy was a common law right that was a subspecies of many rights and hence incapable of being termed as a standalone homogenous fundamental right. Eminent lawyer K K Venugopal paid the price of accepting the position of Attorney General by putting up the contrived argument that the right to privacy was an elitist construct. The Court dismissed the submission as unsustainable. The message was clear: What is good for the politics of a ruling party is bad in law.
It becomes ugly when what is bad in law is tacitly approved by the establishment. Tens of thousands of men were pouring into Panchkula days before the verdict was to be pronounced in the Dera Sauda rape case. Weapons including AK 47s were also being stored. Yet, Haryana’s Chief Minister Khattar did nothing, said nothing. Finally, when violence claimed 31 lives and left 250 injured, he said anti-social elements had created problems. The Punjab & Haryana High Court exposed him by calling the government’s inaction “a political surrender to allure vote bank”.
That’s exactly what the official position was. Khattar and many BJP luminaries had been publicly cultivating the Dera Sauda leader because the man, for all the criminalities he was involved in, had gathered a following that ran into crores. This is a peculiar Indian phenomenon. No other country offers frauds such a free run. Born-again Christian zealots of the West and their imitators in India have developed the God industry with modern corporate efficiency. But they command neither the mass following nor the vote potential of the godmen in India.
Criminally culpable godmen have been riding high under all religious labels because of conspiratorial support by those in power. The illegalities of the Dera cult had received support from Chautala’s National Lok Dal and from Hooda’s Congress before the BJP, all of them condoning criminal actions for perceived vote bank support. What is new is the level of Khattar’s incompetence.
If he had belonged to any other party, the BJP would have created a ruckus for his removal. In the event, the BJP extended unprecedented protection to him, proving to be as unprincipled as all other parties. All the more reason we should admire the courage of the High Court and the CBI court judges. In a dangerously charged atmosphere, the CBI judge had to be airlifted to the makeshift court. Unperturbed by threats all around him, he pronounced that the Dera chief deserved no sympathy. The goodness of the few makes up for the wickedness of the many. To that heaven of upright minds, my father, let my country awake.